Healthcare Quarterly

Healthcare Quarterly 7(4) September 2004 : 9-9.doi:10.12927/hcq..17129

Quarterly Letters: The Correct Caduceus

Trevor Hancock


I note you were looking for feedback on your new "hero" - Caduceus (see Healthcare Quarterly 7(2). It is, as you note, the wrong symbol - just how wrong is revealed in the following excerpt. Do you really want to use a symbol that is "identified with thieves, merchants, and messengers, and Mercury is said to be patron of thieves and outlaws, not a desirable protector of physicians." I strongly suggest you rework your "hero" and use the staff of Asclepius.

The Caduceus: Representative of Merchants and Thieves, Not Healing

By Stuart A. Hayman, MS and Abraham L. Halpern, MD

Before you adorn your next business card or order stationery with the Caduceus, be sensitive to the fact that this symbol might not be suitable for your needs. When correctly depicted, the Caduceus is the image of the staff of the Roman god Mercury, surmounted with two wings and entwined with two snakes (serpents). The Caduceus symbol is identified with thieves, merchants, and messengers, and Mercury is said to be patron of thieves and outlaws, not a desirable protector of physicians.

There is a great deal of confusion among physicians, as well as the general public, regarding the Caduceus as a medical symbol. The correct symbol of the medical profession, the staff of Aesclepius, does resemble the Caduceus, but they are not the same. The staff of Aesclepius, the son of the Greek god Apollo, is entwined by a single snake, not two, and it is without wings.

Perhaps Webster's Dictionary is partially responsible for promoting the inappropriate use of the Caduceus, which it defines as an insignia bearing a Caduceus and symbolizing a physician. We found repeated misuses of this symbol throughout publications by attorneys, accountants and medical organizations, as well as in multiple sales advertisements.

In 1985, after 57 years, the leadership of the University of Rochester's School of Medicine and Dentistry terminated the school's use of the Caduceus on the institution's seal. They correctly concluded that the doctors and dentists they train should not be identified with thieves, merchants and messengers. The University appropriately adorns its new seal with the staff of Aesclepius, which is the correct symbol of the medical profession and represents healing. Aesclepius, the legendary Greek physician, was said to be gifted and wise when a snake adorned his staff. The legend surrounding Aesclepius proclaimed that the Greek physician became so skillful in healing that he could revive the dead.

Zeus eventually killed him, but Apollo persuaded Zeus to make Aesculapius the god of medicine.

Despite its inappropriateness, multiple medical organizations continue to employ the Caduceus to represent medicine and healing. Some of the more prominent organizations that we believe improperly utilize this symbol are the US Army Medical Corps, the Public Health Service, and the US Marine Hospital. The AMA and the Westchester Academy of Medicine are among the organizations that have adopted the correct symbol as part of their logos. The next time you need an appropriate medical symbol, be sure to utilize the correct one … the staff of Aesclepius with one snake, not the Caduceus, with two snakes.

Westchester County Medical Society
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About the Author(s)

Trevor Hancock, Vancouver, BC


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